You might have heard someone called “anemic” before and wondered just what that meant! Anemia is a disease related to the blood, but other parts of the body can be affected by it as well. Read on to find out more about this disease.
What is Anemia?
When a person is anemic, this means that they do not have enough red blood cells in their bloodstream to stay healthy.
Red blood cells are important. Your blood is made up of three main kinds of cells: white blood cells (which help your body to kill off bacteria, viruses and other germs that can make you sick), platelets (which help you stop bleeding when you get a cut) and red blood cells (which deliver oxygen from your lungs to all the cells of the body while at the same time picking up waste). They are made up largely of a special kind of iron-rich protein called hemoglobin, which is actually what does all the heavy work when it comes to oxygen delivery! However, your body needs iron and other nutrients like B-vitamins to make enough of the cells. Without enough red blood cells, the other cells in your body just aren’t getting enough oxygen – and that’s a problem!
What Causes Anemia?
Okay, this might sound a little confusing, but there are actually many different types of anemia — and each of them is caused by something different! Some of the many types are:
- Iron deficiency anemia. This is when your body just doesn’t have enough iron to make the red blood cells your body needs. This can come from internal blood loss — meaning a person is bleeding on the inside and doesn’t know it! It can also happen to girls who have heavy periods or people who use certain medications like Advil for a long period of time since this can lead to bleeding in the stomach.
- Vitamin deficiency anemia. You may have plenty of iron, but if you don’t have enough folate or B12 as well, you’re still not going to have enough red blood cells! Sometimes, no matter who much B12 someone takes, their bodies cannot absorb the vitamin — this is called pernicious anemia and is treated with B12 injections.
- Chronic or bone marrow disease anemia. Some forms of anemia happen when a person has some form of bone marrow disease. This is because it is the bone marrow that makes red blood cells in the first place! One specific kind of anemia in this category is aplastic anemia, which happens when the bone marrow does not function properly and cannot make enough red blood cells. It can also happen due to another disease, such as Crohn’s disease, which is a disease of the digestive tract.
- Sickle cell anemia. This is a condition where there are enough red blood cells being made, but they are the wrong shape! Instead of being shaped roughly like a doughnut, they are more like a crescent moon! The problem is that these red blood cells tend to die off more quickly than healthy ones and the body cannot make enough to replace them.
- Hemolytic anemia. This is when the body destroys red blood cells faster than it is able to make them. There are several different conditions that can cause this to happen.
How Does Someone Know if they Have Anemia?
Since there are many different kinds of anemia, there can be many different signs and symptoms of this condition, too! Some of the most common ones are:
- Feeling tired or weak, even with enough sleep
- Pale or ashy-looking skin
- Hands and feet that are always cold
- Light-headedness or dizziness
- Problems with memory and focus
- Feeling short of breath
- A racing or irregular heartbeat
Who is at Risk for Anemia?
While anyone can get anemia, there are certain things that make it more likely. These risk factors include:
- Being female. Being pregnant or having heavy periods can cause anemia.
- Medical history. People who have a history of stomach ulcers, Celiac disease or Crohn’s disease are at a greater risk. Other conditions which can lead to anemia include liver disease and cancer.
- Family history. Some kinds of anemia, like sickle cells anemia, can be passed down from a parent to their child.
- Diet. A person whose diet is low in iron and B-vitamins is also at risk. Meat and other animal-based foods are some of the best sources of these nutrients. This is why vegetarians must make sure that they are getting plenty of foods that are rich in these nutrients to make sure their levels are adequate.
Are There Complications from Anemia?
A complication is something that can happen as a result of having a certain disease. Anemia, like many disease, does have complications, including:
- Severe tiredness (fatigue). This is due to chronic lack of oxygen
- Heart failure. The heart can simply give out since it has to “work overtime” to try and make sure the cells get enough oxygen.
- Death. A severe case of anemia (especially due to blood loss) can be fatal.
How Can the Doctor Tell if You Have Anemia?
If a doctor suspects that someone has anemia, he will give them a physical exam and ask them about their signs and symptoms, such as if they feel tired all the time. They will also do tests, including the following:
- Complete blood count (CBC). The doctor will take a sample of your blood then send to a medical lab. They will do a count of the number of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets that you have.
- Hematocrit and hemoglobin. This is also a blood test and it looks at the amount of iron-rich protein a person has in their blood.
- The doctor might also run tests to look at the shape, size and color of the red blood cells. In the case of sickle-cell anemia, the red blood cells appear to be shaped like crescent moons, for instance.
- The doctor might do further tests if these come back unusual. A bone marrow sample may also be taken if the doctor thinks someone might have a bone marrow disease.
How is Anemia Treated?
There are several different ways to treat anemia, depending on what is causing it. These can include:
- Taking iron and B-vitamin supplements
- Eating an iron-rich diet
- Getting B12 injections if needed
- Treating the underlying disease that is causing the anemia
- Chemotherapy, medications or a bone marrow transplant (in case of bone marrow disease)
- Immunosuppressive medications (special meds that stop the body from mounting an immune response) in the case of hemolytic anemia.
- Home oxygen, pain pills, extra fluids and antibiotics as needed to treat sickle cell anemia
In short, anemia is a common problem that can happen for LOTS of different reasons — and can be very serious. The good news is that most cases of anemia can be treated simply with supplements and a nutritious diet to make life better for people with this condition.